Sanctions Could be the West’s Best Hope to Stop Russia

Written by: Audrey McGrory

From the Polish government’s efforts to diminish the country’s freedom of the press to the Russian government’s blatant influence and obstruction in the nation’s parliamentary election, Western hopes of democracy in Eastern Europe seem increasingly dashed by such recent events, which have occurred in the region’s seemingly collective shift towards the far-right and authoritarianism. 

Long advocating for democracy in the countries that once formed Europe’s “Eastern Bloc,” Western democracies have observed the region’s shift to authoritarianism with great dismay. After the poisoning of Alexei Navalny—a Russian opposition leader who has been an open critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin—British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on the Russian government to “explain what happened to [him],” promising to “work with international partners to ensure justice is done.” In the wake of the Polish government’s introduction of legislation that would severely restrict freedom of the press in the country, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the action, stating, “This draft legislation threatens media freedom and could undermine Poland’s strong investment climate.”

While public statements can convey condemnation and highlight a nation’s position on a certain event, other means have been employed by Western democracies to express their disapproval of the increasingly-common far-right, authoritarian actions demonstrated by Eastern European governments, namely Russia, which has actively sought to influence politics in Eastern Europe. One of the most common means employed by Western democracies—especially the United States—to condemn Russia’s actions are sanctions. 

Despite their prevalence, U.S. politicians have become increasingly skeptical of the country’s sanctions on Russia, which first began after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. For example, in 2018, Senator Rand Raul of Kentucky announced his plan “to ask [then-President] Donald Trump to lift sanctions on members of the Russian legislature…for meetings…,” and pushed against sanctions on Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 project. In 2019, when Democratic lawmakers sought to block the repeal of sanctions on companies owned by Oleg Deripaska—a Russian oligarch who was repeatedly mentioned in the Mueller Report for his connections to former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort—the measure was blocked by Republican senators. Conversely, under the Biden Administration, Democratic lawmakers seem less responsive to U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia, as recent reports suggest Secretary Blinken has been lobbying Democratic senators to block a Republican-proposed bill to enforce sanctions on the Russian-owned Nord Stream 2 AG. 

If the United States and other Western democracies are serious about condemning Russia for its aggressive foreign policy and its authoritarian influence in Eastern Europe, sanctions are an incredibly effective tool, especially in their long-term capacity. 

Despite their relatively short lifespan of seven years, U.S. sanctions against Russia have a history of effectiveness. Upon analysis of Russia’s military aggression towards Ukraine in 2014, evidence suggests that “the prospect of a severe escalation in sanctions” coupled with Ukraine’s strong military efforts dissuaded “Russian-backed separatist forces” in the eastern part of the country from seizing Mariupol, a city that would have been key to Russia’s push into the country. 

In addition to influencing military behavior, sanctions have significantly affected Russia’s economy. Since 2014, Russia’s economy has grown roughly 0.3 percent per year, paling in comparison to the global average of 2.3. Given the Russian economy’s dependence on oil production, decreases in oil prices beginning in 2014 could be to blame for the Russian economy’s lack of growth, yet sanctions have been particularly effective in impacting capital flows for long-term investment in Russia—even impacting institutions that have not been sanctioned in their ability to borrow funds. 

During the Obama Administration, the United States—in collaboration with the European Union—severely restricted access by Russian companies to Western financial markets, subsequently discouraging “Western companies from investing in Russia.” Posing long-term consequences for the Russian economy, financial institutions in the West were “banned from issuing loans with maturity periods exceeding thirty days for several of Russia’s biggest banks and companies,” halting such institutions from engaging in “long-term operations.” It was not until 2016 that Russian financial institutions had the ability to raise capital in Western markets, but by this time, the damage to the Russian economy had already been done and severe pressure had been placed on Russia’s Central Bank to generate lost liquidity. 

U.S. involvement alone is significant. In a global economic context, the United States wields a distinct significance, as the dollar remains the global reserve currency, meaning that many countries and financial institutions hold the currency in their foreign exchange reserves. Explaining its importance, Edward Fishman, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center notes, “America…possesses…a command of global finance, in which…the near-impossibility of conducting cross-border commerce without access to dollars give Washington a weapon it can deploy swiftly, unilaterally, and with devastating impact.” As a result, Western sanctions have forced Russia to search elsewhere for financial assistance, like in China and the Persian Gulf, yet these countries have been hesitant to comply with Russia given their own businesses in the U.S. and the risk of being sanctioned.

The long-term impacts are perhaps the most notable aspect of Western sanctions on Russia. Estimates by the International Monetary Fund suggest that Western sanctions could shrink Russia’s economic growth by 35 percentage points after twenty years. More generous estimates have suggested Russian economic growth would shrink by 64 percentage points after the same period. As a result, Russia—as already evident—would have fewer means to fund “military adventures, subversion, disinformation and repression.”

While sanctions have a history of posing severe consequences for the nation on their receiving end, sanctions can negatively impact the imposing nation as well. Despite efforts to concentrate the effects of sanctions within a government, sanctions can be felt by a nation’s people—and in the case of Russia, this transcendent effect can generate anti-Western sentiment and strengthen the government’s public support. In response to U.S.-imposed sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, many shops in Crimea halted the sale of American-related products, refusing to sell “Americanos”; people displayed racist images of “Obama eating a banana onto the side of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow,” and purchased T-shirts with “pictures of an Iskander missile launcher that said ‘Sanctions? Don’t make my Iskander laugh’.” While such actions may seem purely reactionary, American sanctions have largely contributed to the Russian public’s nearly unanimous disapproval of the United States, as “more than 80 percent of Russians hold negative views of [the country],”—marking the greatest disapproval since the independent Levada Center began recording such data in 1988.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys consistently high approval ratings, his anti-Western messaging often aligns with the anti-Western sentiment widely held by the Russian population. Appealing to Russian nationalism, Putin has drawn on Russia’s anti-Western views as a tool to unify the nation. 

While the balancing of Putin’s own anti-Western stances with Russia’s anti-Western views may seem like a successful path to long-term power for the Russian president, the balancing act is complex. By placing pressure on Russian leaders to act in response to nationalist demands—even those deemed “risky”—the embracing of nationalism wields its own unique risks. Fortunately for the Russian state, in the aftermath of conflicts in Georgia and Crimea, the Russian people “felt that their government was solidifying its place as a resurgent power after the end of the Cold War,” proving that despite the challenges accompanied by growing nationalism, the Russian government has largely reaped its political benefit.

As Russia moves its military forces closer to Ukraine and allegations of Russian-backed coup plots surface, the United States and other Western democracies have been hesitant to take action. In deciding how to approach increasing authoritarianism and aggression against existing democracies in Eastern Europe, Western democracies should not rule out employing further sanctions—even in addition to other diplomatic, or militaristic mechanisms. Sanctions can be incredibly effective, and judging by the short-term effects, the long-term effects could be even more notable. 

Despite arguing in support for sanctions, the harmful impacts of sanctions must be fully recognized. Sanctions—although perhaps unintentionally—can affect ordinary people, accentuating existing income inequality and creating humanitarian concerns; these consequences are grave, and should be debated thoughtfully. While not entirely full-proof, U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia have favored long-term results by targeting specific individuals, seeking to exclude ordinary people from their negative impacts. Such an approach has drawn criticism over the sanctions’ effectiveness, yet it highlights an intent to isolate ordinary Russian people from the burdens of sanctions—namely economic sanctions. This long-term vision for sanctions not only minimizes the harmful impacts on ordinary people, but it is the most effective implementation of such a mechanism on Russia. 

The aggressive, deceitful tactics used by President Vladimir Putin are not unique to his character but are pervasive throughout the nation’s military, security and intelligence institutions. As a result, sanctions with longevity in mind will not only work to quell President Vladimir Putin’s use of aggressive political, intelligence and military campaigns, but the institutions that will defy his presidency.